In case you’ve missed the news, Niemi is no longer the starter in Chicago, as the Hawks have walked away from his $2.75 million dollar arbitration award, rending him an unrestricted free agent. Veteran keeper Marty Turco was brought in yesterday to fill the starter role in the Windy City, and amidst all of the reaction to the deal, a bigger question has surfaced – who’s got the edge in the Central Division between the pipes?
Granted, it’s a question that will be answered during the season, but the goaltending situation in the Central Division has changed considerably since last year, and this division is one of the most competitive in the NHL. In 2009, the Central Division sent four of its teams to the playoffs, accounting for half of all teams in the West. With the addition of Marty Turco and Jaroslav Halak to the Central, who’s the the best all-around keeper?
Chicago Blackhawks: Marty Turco – Corey Crawford – Christobal Huet
It’s pretty much common knowledge that Chicago will bury Huet’s troublesome contract in the AHL, so realistically, it’ll likely be a Turco-Crawford tandem. Yesterday, I came out against the Turco deal, saying that the Hawks had dealt away a promising player for a marginal financial gain. I’ll step back from the ledge a bit. If Turco gets as good a performance from Seabrook, Keith and Hjalmarsson that they got last year, Turco may not have to be all that great. Arguably, Dallas had a terrible defensive core in front of Turco, and he still recorded a respectable .913 SV% and 22 wins. The real question marks should be surrounding Corey Crawford rather than Turco, because Crawford will get a healthy amount of starts behind Marty, and he’s now becoming the future for the Hawks in net. If Crawford develops into a solid starter by 2012, Hawks fans everywhere will quickly forget about Niemi.
St. Louis Blues: Jaroslav Halak – Ty Conklin
Jettisoning painfully mediocre goaltender Chris Mason, the Blues made one of the first offseason splashes by acquiring Jaroslav Halak from the Canadians for a couple of prospects. During the postseason, Halak was remarkably suffocating in net, helping the Habs bounce both the Penguins and the Capitals before succumbing to the Flyers in the Eastern Conference Final. But will his performance translate into regular season success for the Blues?
His regular season record with the Canadians is encouraging enough (26W, 13L), and his save percentage during the season (.924) is nearly identical to the SV% he posted over 18 games in the postseason (.923). He gives the full appearance of a young goaltender who’s primed to become a franchise player – but he could turn into a bust just like any other young goaltender content with his raise after a stellar playoff performance. Blues fans have every right to be stoked about this addition, and by all accounts, the tandem of Ty Conklin and Halak should give St. Louis some much needed stability in net, but Jaro still has to prove he can be a winning goaltender all season long.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Steve Mason – Mathieu Garon
The Blue Jackets took a step backwards last season, missing the playoffs entirely in 2010, and unfortunately, rookie standout Steve Mason experienced the dreaded sophomore slump. His rookie year was Calder-trophy worthy, recording 33 wins, and 10 shutouts, but his performance really fell off the map in 2010. His goals against average rose to 3.06, allowing 163 goals against as the Blue Jackets quickly plummeted to the basement of the Western Conference.
If Steve Mason recovers his rookie-year form, he could legitimately top this list. During the 2009 season, he showed flashes of absolute brilliance, and if his disastrous sophomore stint is really an anomaly, Mason could catapult the Jackets back into playoff contention. Backup Mathieu Garon saw 35 starts last year, and won 12 of them (2 of those 12 being shutouts), and he’ll provide decent support from the bench, but all eyes are on Mason in Columbus.
Detroit Red Wings: Jimmy Howard – Chris Osgood
The Red Wings had a terrible first half of the season, but rebounded well enough to snag the fifth spot in the West, defeating the surging Coyotes in the first round before getting bounced in the conference semi-finals. Instead of relying on veteran goaltender Chris Osgood, the Wings let youngster Jimmy Howard take the reigns, and he didn’t disappoint. Notching 37 wins over 63 starts, Howard recorded a .924 SV% as well as a 2.26 GAA, leading the Wings to the postseason, despite having only played in 9 total NHL games before last year.
The Central Division is now loaded with a ton of young goaltenders with potential, and Howard might be among the most promising in the entire league. Sure, he’s had the benefit of defensive powerhouses like Nik Lidstrom and Pavel Datsuk, but after last season, Howard has proven his ability to win as a starter. Osgood will provide a 15-20 game cushion from the bench, provided Howard stays healthy, but the Wings have a solid tandem in net.
Nashville Predators: Pekka Rinne
After the Predators dealt backup Dan Ellis to Montreal (he would eventually sign with Tampa Bay), it left only Pekka Rinne to handle the goaltending duties in Nashville. Last season, Rinne posted 32 wins, 7 shutouts and .911 save percentage over 58 total starts. The Finnish goaltender helped the Predators reach the playoffs, and took two wins from the eventual Stanley Cup Champions in the first round before bowing out in six games.
Nashville’s defense is a little thin on first rate talent – Shea Weber and Ryan Suter could likely crack any teams top two pairings, but the depth really ends with them. The Predators were directly in the middle of the pack in goals against, and unlike the Wings or the Hawks, Rinne didn’t have the luxury of consistent defense in front of him. Couple that existing mediocrity with the departure of Dan Hamuis, and it seems like the biggest problem the Preds have is on the blueline. That being said, he’s still fairly young (28), and assuming he can stay healthy, still has five-ish years of productive hockey left, if not more.